Simple silhouettes dance across a screen awash in a glow of light. On one side of the screen a puppeteer choreographs movement and words, with hands working together bringing puppets to life. On the other side, an enchanted observer feels and imagines right along with the movement, character and story presented. Shadow puppetry is a delight for children of all ages no matter what side of the screen one sits on.
At a time when daylight is fleeting and creativity endures, the glow of a lit screen and handmade puppets can transform time, location, and season allowing the imagination to extend beyond a cold, dreary or snowy day.
The basic materials needed for such an endeavor are as simple as the show itself.
Prepare a cardboard box with one side completely removed and a large square cut from the opposite side, silhouettes of animals, people, and objects cut from black construction paper. You also need straws or sticks taped to the back of the silhouettes and a large piece of white paper covering the cut out square.
Beyond these basics, shadow play can encompass even more. Those who wish to be more fanciful in their theatrics can experiment with the use of color. Yes, color! Although the basic white screen is appealing for its contrast, shadow play screens can be created using tissue paper (even cut layers of tissue papers), play silks and white paper with crayon drawings.
Screens of colored tissue paper glow invitingly while colored play silks create a feeling of movement as water, sky or land. A hand-colored or drawn screen can add color and depth. The use of clothespins at the top of the cardboard box theater will secure screens well while also allowing for easy rotation. Experimenting with the shadow play screen adds another delightful dimension to the shadow play process for both the viewer and the performer.
The shadow puppets, although traditionally made with one material, exist today made from a variety of materials including cloth, dried plants, wood, plastic, paper, feathers, and much more. Older children will enjoy adding movement to the puppets through the use of brass brads and additional dowels or sticks. A simple introduction to shadow puppetry can begin by encouraging the child to create cut out silhouettes from black paper. These shapes can be traced or drawn or cut free hand. This simple activity proves to evoke a whirlwind of anticipation and excitement. Later, inexpensive wood cutouts found at a craft store can be painted black with a thin dowel attached by an adult using a hot glue gun for longer lasting and sturdier puppets. Experiment with puppet materials periodically to spark and encourage the child’s artistic creativity and creativity in story and performance.
Simple tales and nursery rhymes can also come to life through the means of shadow play. A young child will enjoy watching a simple performance of Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water (and then tumbling down) so that they can retell the rhyme themselves time and time again. The shadow puppets will also encourage the child to create unique stories all their own and act out feelings, thoughts, and observations through a positive medium.
Lamplight is often used to illuminate the shadow screen and its soft light glows through the other side of the paper, silk, cotton, or tissue paper calling attention from the audience. But don’t save shadow play for just dark and cloudy days! Direct sunlight also illuminates well and shadow play can occur on the sunniest of days when the sun’s rays can rest upon the back of the shadow theater’s screen. The young child may marvel at both the power and whimsy the sun provides with its ability to host a solar-powered shadow show.
There is so much to be discovered and created through the use of shadow play and puppetry. Through shadow play each child (and adult) composes a uniquely creative expression each time a puppet is used, a story is told and a shadow is cast.
Amy Good holds a B.A. in Elementary Education, certification in Montessori Education and is a Waldorf education enthusiast. She is currently pursuing an in-depth study on early childhood and motherhood from her two daughters ages four and six. Find her at The Wonder Years.